Dower Chin’s Asus Eee Slate EP121 Review


Image Courtesy of Asus

A Slate computer, for those that might not know, is simply a laptop that is all contained within a screen, essentially, what an iPad would be considered. Although, tablet is probably a more common term to describe these kinds of computers today. Needless to say, the form factor isn’t new, and they’ve existed long before Apple reinvigorated the form factor. What the problem was though, prior to the iPad, all Slate/Tablets were Windows only, made by niche manufacturers for a very narrow markets, and thus, commanded a really high price tag. After Apple brought tablet/slate computing to the spotlight with an innovative product, it’s now the craze.The other difference is the shear power that can be put into a Slate today compared to only a few years ago. At this January’s CES, one Slate computer caught many peoples attention, it was the Asus EP121 Slate. Why? Because in this years sea of Android based iPad killer wannabe’s the Asus EP121 Slate is one of only a handful of Windows 7 based slates to hit the market from a major PC laptop manufacturer, which also means it’s relatively affordable. In the US, the only places that regularly carry the Asus EP121 are Newegg.com and Amazon.com . Both are regularly sold out within the same day their shipment of Asus EP121’s arrive. Luckily, I was able to pick on up from Newegg.

What then makes this slate so compelling? Let me first show you a chart I devised of what I consider the Pro’s and Con’s of the Asus EP121:

Pro’s:

 

  • Wacom Digitizer Pen
  • Windows 7
  • Intel i5 Processor
  • 12″ Screen
  • Leather case included
  • Bluetooth Keyboard included
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit
  • Front Facing Camera
  • 4GB RAM
  • Excellent Power Supply Design
  • SD Card Slot
  • No shovel-ware
  • Recovery Disk
Con’s:

 

  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit
  • Digitizer Pen does not have third button, feels a cheap.
  • Slow SSD Hard Drive
  • Intel Graphics Processor
  • No Rear Camera
  • Mini HDMI connector
  • Tight USB Connectors and horrid cover design.
  • 3 Hours of Battery Life

Con’s in Detail:

Let’s start with the bad news first. I listed Windows 7 Home Premium as a Con, why? Simply because Windows 7 is not a slate friendly operating system. It is a desktop operating system with some touch compatable functions attached to it as sort of an afterthought. Windows 7 is also a heavy operating system in both resources and physical size. The Asus EP121 model I picked up had a 64GB SSD, and out of the box, almost 20GB of that space was already taken up by the operating system. Windows 7 also requires quite a bit of regular maintenance, such as large patches and the additional burdon of security, spyware and antivirus applications that must be installed on a Windows computer.

The pen is also not the best pen I’ve seen or used on a Tablet/Slate computer. The pen seems similar in construction to the early Wacom tablets, but unlike those, there is only two buttons on this one, the pen tip, and the eraser end. All other Wacom enabled tablets I’ve used always had a third, top button on the pen body, which can be programmed to act as a double click, or even better, a middle mouse button. The build quality of the pen isn’t that great either, it really does feel a bit cheap. I believe the missing button and lacking build quality can only be attributed to a cost savings measure. Overall, the pen is functional as any Wacom pen.

I was a little dismayed at the performance of the SSD Hard Drive that came with the EP121. I’ve read plenty of articles about how blazing fast SSD’s are, and indeed, my wife’s Macbook Air has an impressively fast SSD, but the EP121 seems only slightly better than a traditional platter based hard drive. Sadly though, it’s only 64GB (about 40GB usable after the OS), which may be plenty of space for an iPad or Android tablet, but when desktop apps like Adobe’s software takes up 5GB after installation, it’s not hard to see your space vaporizing pretty quick. Windows is also not the cleanest operating system, since swap files and temp files are littered about with little regard to space, so, it will be imperative to install software like CCleaner or Glary Utilities to help with house cleaning.

The graphics on the EP121 are powered by an integrated Intel HD graphics processor, not a dedicated unit, like an NVidia or ATI. The Intel unit can play back HD content and can handle some game graphics, but honestly, with the disk space available and the slate form factor, I really don’t anticipate playing serious games on it. However, for fun, I did install Torchlight, and it handles it quite nicely.

Probably the biggest complaint against the Asus EP121 is its battery life, which is really only about 3 hours. It’s not awful, but it could be better, considering by today’s standard laptops have battery lives which reach near 5 hours. The decision may have been due to weight. The unit sports a powerful Intel i5 processor, which is more hungry than say an Atom processor found in most Netbooks. More battery life for a more powerful processor would have probably required a bigger battery, and the unit is already at 2.5 pounds. The battery also drains horribly quick in sleep mode too, I don’t know if this has to do with the Windows 7 OS, or the way the system is designed, but don’t be surprised if you wake up the tablet to an almost drained battery after only a few hours in sleep mode.

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The last set of complaints are the lack of a rear facing camera, the inclusion of a mini-HDMI port, and horribly designed USB slot covers. The inclusion of a rear facing camera would have been a nice addition, since most tablets/slates have two cameras today; i don’t necessarily care to take pictures of my son with a front facing camera, but having the option to take a snapshot of a document for example is much harder if you only have a front facing camera. The EP121 uses a a mini-HDMI port instead of a traditional VGA port, which is problematic. The choice to use mini-HDMI may have been due to the form factor, since a VGA or DVI port would have made the unit thicker than it is. The big problem with the mini-HDMI port is most projection units you find in an office today don’t use mini-HDMI or HDMI. All the projectors and teleconferencing systems at my office, for example, all have VGA connectors, so the lack of this commonly used connector hurts the EP121. At the very least if Asus would have provided some kind of adapter to convert the min-HDMI into VGA would have helped. The last negative point is the two USB slots on the unit. They are positioned to the left side (if you are holding it in landscape mode), and are covered with a plastic panel which matches the body of the device; they look nice. The problem isn’t the placement, it’s the panels themselves. They are incredibly hard to pry open, making access the USB port difficult. The USB ports themselves are incredibly tight, so each time I plug or unplug a device from these ports, I’m required to exert quite a bit of force, so I’m not sure if this is just a case of the EP121 being new or not, but I’ve used plenty of laptops and computers to know that USB ports are not supposed to be that tight.

Pro’s in Detail:

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Alright, now that the unpleasent things are out of the way, let’s talk about what’s actually good about this slate. Since hearing about this slate, I’ve been drooling for the chance to get one. For me, it was as if a manufacturer finally made the slate I’ve always wanted! You see, even though the iPad, for all its awesomness, lacks the one vital peripheral I truely desire, a real pen/stylus. I’ve been spoiled by my years of tablet and pen use, and although touching things is more common and useful, there are times when I must write or draw something, and my finger just doesn’t have the accuracy I desire. Even though the pen is a bit on the cheap side, it is still functional, and unlike other slates or tablets I’ve used, the pen slides into a nice covered compartment with a door, so there’s little chance of the pen falling into oblivion, and it also eliminates the need for a string/strap to prevent loss. I was also happy to discover that a Penabled Executive pen I bought for my old HP Elitebook Convertable 2710p works just fine on the EP121, so I can leave the cheap stylus nicely tucked into its compartment and use my better pen.

In addition to the pen, there is also the allure of being able to run real desktop applications, such as Adobe Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro, Microsoft OneNote, and even 3D Studio Max. But in order to really run these programs you need some real horsepower under the hood, and all other manufactureres are a letdown compared to the Asus EP121, which packs an Intel i5 processor. In comparison, the HP Slate, which had a stealthy unannounced release in late 2010 is only an Atom netbook processor. Even Dell’s announced Windows 7 tablet, which is to debut late this year is only going to pack an Atom processor. I’ve not run any benchmarks on the CPU, but it runs Windows 7 quite smoothly and the Windows Experience Index rates the CPU at a 5.3.

The Asus EP121 sports a 12″ display, which is unheard of for a slate, since most measure in at 10.1″. The screen has excellent clarity, and has a resolution of 1280 x 800 (16:10 widescreen ratio). The screen is also protected by Corning Gorilla Glass, so you can be sure the screen won’t scuff up easily (although it is still a finger print magnet).

Asus has done a fine job of augmenting what Windows 7 lacks in a tablet interface, these include a button on the top which automatically brings up the on-screen keyboard, and a “home” button of sorts on the front, which essentially is a Windows-Tab key combination, so you can quickly scroll through your open applications. The EP121 also has an accelerometer built in so it can rotate the screen when changed from portrait to landscape, and there is also a rotation lock button to prevent this from happening. Asus mercifully didn’t load this unit with the usual shovel-ware that comes on most laptops, the only thing there besides a starter version of MS Office was their cloud storage application. Another thing that Asus includes which most manufacturers have abandoned, is the inclusion of recovery media.

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The extras the system came with are a leather portfolio case, a very nice bluetooth keyboard, and a nice power supply. The case is a nice looking Asus branded black portfolio style case, which features fold out panels which help prop the slate up in various positions, a very nice addition, since most third party cases would be generic, and probably run around $50 or more. The keyboard is an Asus branded Microsoft Keyboard 6000, which sports a nice ergonomic curve and is bluetooth, so there’s no need to mess with dongles. The power supply is also a very nice surprise, I wouldn’t normally talk about the power supply of a laptop, but Asus didn’t skimp in this area, whereas most manufacturers treat the power supply as an afterthought. Indeed, the power supply is a nice white slim profile unit made for traveling. The unit even includes a USB port so you can plug an additonal USB device into it for charging (like an iPhone or iPad).

Final Thoughts:

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The Asus EP121 is a very well thought out Windows 7 powered Slate. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close. $1200 seems high, but when you add in the performance gain over similar slate computers and the extras that are included it’s really quite decent. If you really want to run Windows applications and have a portable drawing tablet combo in one, then this is probably your best bet. Just don’t forget your power supply.

I hope you enjoyed reading this, and please let me know what you think.